Biking 2016 - Ethiopia Day 3 & 4

- by Fred Schlomka -
Day 4 & 5 • 30th & 31st January
Addis Ababa, Alem Tena - Ziway
Total biked - 96km

Quite a day for the first bike ride in Africa. I was driven by Sheme out of Addis Ababa to Debre Zeit, also known as Bishoftu. Apparently the name was changed after the replacement of communist rule with the present regime.

As Sheme pulls up to a stop, a cluster of policemen descend on us and need to see IDs. Then they open the van and start to paw through all the bags. I am frisked - “looking for a pistol” - the policeman explains. Since they have the guns and the authority, I don’t object but smile pleasantly to everyone and act the part of a stupid tourist. I am soon on my way.

I had chosen this route to the east and south of Addis Ababa because it passed two lakes and seemed therefor to  have not too steep hills. I was right, at least for today. The terrain to the east of Addis is a flat farming plain with good black soil.

The road isn’t too bad, but a bit challenging at times since the shoulder changed from hardtop to gravel, and then occasionally there’s a stretch with a 20-centimetre drop from the road to the shoulder. I stay on the road whenever possible then bump on to the shoulder when it gets too scary - like when two trucks are passing me at the same time, and another truck is barreling along towards us. Nerves of steel. Nerves of steel.

I had a very early breakfast so decided that brunch was in order. Just passed the town of Mojo I turn right to head south and there’s a bus terminal and a strip of coffee shops and kiosks. I continue until I see a sign with food pictures on it. They served me an artistically arranged plate of Injera (local flat bread) with several small helpings of greens, potatoes, various sauces and onions. It is perfect. Just what I need

Even in the countryside people are everywhere. I move onto an older secondary road that has likely been a transport route for centuries or more. It is lined with grass huts. Yes, real round grass huts with straw and wattle walls and thatched roofs. If stepping into Addis was like going back a century, then today is another century removed.

Ancient men and women are plowing fields with donkeys and oxen attached to wooden plows. Three or four generations are working the fields with them. It’s Saturday so the kids are not in school (do they go to school). Periodically as I pass a cluster of huts the cry of ‘Ferangi’ (foreigner) starts circulating from mouth to mouth, and within 10 seconds the kids start streaming onto the road from all sides. “You - you - you” they all chant for some reason. “Where you go?” is added by those with more words.

Earlier in the day I stop and whip out the juggling bean bags and stop them in their tracks as I do a few cascades and tricks. Later in the day when I am tired - no bean bags - . I yell back at them but only get cross when they grab at the bike or a bag. Generally I can bike faster than they can run.

At one village there seems to be a market so I pause at a cluster of policemen and ask them to look after the bike for a few minutes. They immediately start cuffing the kids and adults who are crowding around. Every time I stop, I attract a crowd. Must be my good looks.

I walk deep into the village along smelly dirt trails. The ubiquitous gaggle of kids are following. This lot seems more ragged than most, and filthy. The village woman all seem to be mostly beautiful, reasonably dressed, clean and sweet smelling. Why can’t they do the same for the kids. I’m a newcomer. I should withhold judgement. It’s hard though.

I buy 3 tomatoes from an old crone squatting in front of he meagre wares, and then some spices from another vendor. The squaller was among the worst I have ever seen. I leave. The cops have done their job and my bike and bags are still intact. However there’s about 200 villagers surrounding it - all discussing what this white guy is doing, and why. Since I am still trying to figure that our, I couldn’t enlighten them.

Odd animals are everywhere. I see a flock of enormous birds on the ground. And I mean enormous. They stand about one metre tall. I was allowed to get within a couple of metres of one to take a photo. I certainly wouldn’t want to get him pissed off. Then this monkey appears on the shoulder of the road and I screech to a halt just a few metres away. He sees me and hops to a nearby tree. I approach cautiously for the obligatory photo. Donkeys are everywhere and look to be well kept and fed. Cows and bulls of all shapes and sizes meander on and off the road, some accompanied by humans, others are not. Some of the bulls have enormous curved horns. Also make a mental not not to ever piss them off.

This is a mixed Christian and Muslim area so I pass a few churches and mosques. It is Saint Mary’s (Miriam) day so Christians are flocking to church.

By mid-afternoon I start flagging and looking for a potential camp site. I was advised that it’s best to ask a shop or cafe to pitch the tent in their back yard. Less hassle from local kids. However wild camping is possible and would be best between villages so there’s less of an audience. The I arrive at Alem Tena village and see a sign for the “Hoteela Sallam”. Looks a little seedy like everything else in the village but I stop and look at a room.

It’s an interesting study in contrasts. Their back yard is unkempt and the row of rooms/shacks looks like it was painted once when it was built maybe 50 years ago. The interior of the room might have had paint at one time but the walls are various shades of off off yellow. But the bed is immaculately made up with very clean looking sheets and blanket. It will do. The price is right - $3/night.

So I settle in. Bring the bike in the room, and when I go to the cafe, I lock it with my Noke bluetooth padlock which fits the hasp on the door. Hi-tech meets African bush hut.

After a beer I collect some wood scraps to fire up the camp stove. The proprietor offers an electric hot plate she pulled out of a shelf and dusted off, but I prefer the stove. She understands. All their cooking is on a charcoal stove in a lean-to hut out back.

The staff all watch with interest while I fire up the stove, cut up veggies, and proceed to make a thick and spicy lentil stew. I am provided with injera by my host and have a tasty dinner. Then a walk in the village which is full of life as the sun goes down. The mud streets are full of vendors sitting in the muck, selling everything from a piece of sugar cane to suck on, to hand made wooden chairs, to the latest fashions from China. I cruise for a bit then head back for a good night’s sleep. All in all a great day.

Next morning I make breakfast and head out early. The day is much like yesterday. I did a bit of research and found that the plain I am riding through was once a climax forrest with elephants, lions and a full array of flora and fauna. As agriculture developed in the region, like many parts of the world, successive native populations over millenia have cut trees in order to plant crops. The heavy black topsoil I saw near Addis Ababa has given way to a dusty brown soil with little friability. Only intensive organic methods could revitalise such soil, unfortunately the government encourages foreign companies to develop industrialised mega farms, usually mono-cropping flowers that are in demand in Europe. Israeli, French and Dutch companies are active here.

Seems to be mostly Muslim folks today. My “Salaam alekum” elicits broad smiles and a returned “Alekum al Salaam”. I pass some mud and straw mosques of interesting design, often in various stages of construction in a family compound. I now seem to be stopping about every 10 kilometres for a coffee, tea, or lunch. However lunch today was slim pickings. Just some large donut holes served with tea. It seemed to be the only prepared food for sale in the small village where I stopped.

The cows are now mostly of the humped back variety. handsome beasts. Unfortunately the condition of most of the donkeys and horses seems to deteriorate the further from Addis I go. Some of the horses pulling carts are scrawny and skinny. Obviously not well cared for. Dogs are ubiquitous, and I believe I saw one or two hyenas hanging out with the dogs and other assorted animals. Kids take the flock for a walk and all the animals are together - cows, goats, donkeys, dogs, and apparently the odd hyena.

The riding is not too bad, with a few gentle undulating hills to break up the monotony of the plain. The kids become a real pain in the neck. I had expected this but it doesn’t make it easier. - “you, you you”! - “money money, money”! “Ferangi, ferangi” (foreigner)- They scream in unison. The sound reaches the next field so no sooner than I leave one group behind but the next one streams out to the road. They run next to the bike. They grab at it, and me. My good humor goes only so far. The best strategy is to aim for them, then swerve over to the other side of the road (if there’s no cars coming in either direction), or speed up and aim straight for the group. They scatter and I continue to speed up, outrunning their small legs.

Then there’s the two teens on bikes who get on either side of me screaming “Money, money, money”. They are slightly menacing and I notice one has a machete tied to the back of the bike. I ask them for money too, and generally try and joke around until they tire of the game.

Finally I ride into Ziway a bit tired and bedraggled. It’s only 1.30pm and I’ve ridden 50km., but it feels like much more. So I wasn’t in the mood for a hovel like last night and when I saw the sign for the Ziway Lodge, it looked like it might have a shower. As I bike through the gate into the lush, carefully tended garden and hear the sounds of the waterfall tinkling into the swimming pool, I know I’m in the right place. A single room costs eight times what I paid last night but is still about the same price as a hostel dorm in Israel or Europe.

So the day winds down in relative luxury. I shower, wash clothes, jump in the pool, and have a chat with the owner, Michael, an Expat from England. He’s a bit of an oddball character, but I guess you would have to be if you spend six years developing a property in a remote part of Africa.

The internet is dead slow and stop. What to do? I go for a walk and explore the town. It’s quite large. Pop. about 200,000. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll explore the Lake.

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